Fitness to work tests linked to rise in suicides

one sad woman sitting on the floor near a wall and holding her head in her hands
one sad woman sitting on the floor near a wall and holding her head in her hands

The UK's fitness to work tests have probably tipped 590 people over the edge into committing suicide, experts have concluded.

Researchers from Oxford and Liverpool universities examined the state of mental health in all 149 local authorities around the country and compared it with trends in fitness to work reassessments.

And, they found, for every 10,000 people reassessed in each area under fitness to work tests, there were an extra six suicides compared to normal. On top of this, they found, there were 2,700 more cases of mental health problems reported, and an extra 7,020 prescriptions for antidepressants.

Over the country as a whole, this equates to 590 extra suicides, 279,000 extra cases of mental illness and 725,000 extra prescriptions between 2010 and 2013.

The effects were strongest in the most deprived areas of the country.

"The programme of reassessing people on disability benefits using the work capability assessment was independently associated with an increase in suicides, self-reported mental health problems and antidepressant prescribing," says Benjamin Barr, from Liverpool's Institute of Psychology, Health and Society.

"This policy may have had serious adverse consequences for mental health in England, which could outweigh any benefits that arise from moving people off disability benefits."

Tom Pollard, policy and campaigns manager at mental health charity Mind, says the government's work capability assessment can be seriously harmful.

"We know that people with mental health problems often find these assessments hugely stressful and, since they don't accurately assess the extent to which a mental health problem can affect someone's ability to work, many individuals get the wrong outcome," he says.

"This could mean they are required to look for work before they are ready, or have to go through a lengthy and stressful appeals process to challenge the decision, all of which can impact further on their mental health."

Fitness to work tests have already been linked anecdotally with a number of suicides. This September, a coroner ruled that Michael O'Sullivan, a 60-year-old father of two from north London, killed himself as a direct result of being found fit to work by the assessors.

In August - after a long battle by freedom of information campaigners - the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) finally released figures showing that between December 2011 and February 2014, 2,380 individuals died after a work capability assessment found they were found fit for work.

This latest research, clearly, doesn't prove that the fitness to work tests caused the extra suicides - merely that more tests are associated with more deaths, to an extent that's statistically significant.

In theory, the numbers could equally well indicate that the suicides could be causing the tests, or that both could be caused by a third factor.

And, perhaps because it doesn't understand what statistical analysis actually is, the DWP is effectively seizing on these possible alternative explanations.

"This report is wholly misleading, and the authors themselves caution that no conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect," a spokesman tells the Mirror.

"In addition, it is concerning that they provide no evidence that the people with mental health problems highlighted in the report even underwent a work capability assessment."

Everything You Need to Know About the DWP's Use of Fake Benefit Sanctions I
Everything You Need to Know About the DWP's Use of Fake Benefit Sanctions I